Friday, May 15, 2009

Does Prayer Work?

Christianity Today, one of my favorite magazines, has an interesting commentary on "prayer studies" that is a must read. Here's a taste:

Should your doctor prescribe prayer as part of your treatment? According to a study of 1,134 physicians this past December by Health Care Direct Research, the majority of doctors (70 percent) believe miracles are possible today. Yet fewer than 29 percent believe that the outcomes of medical treatments are related to "supernatural forces" or "acts of God."

Studies on prayer in medicine have a way of demarcating the battle lines between saints and skeptics: Christians long for scientific proof of the efficacy of prayer. Critics, waiting for the opposite, hope to undermine religious faith. For better or worse, we have seen many attempts to measure the healing effects of intercessory prayer. The first known studies were published in 1873 by English polymath Francis Galton. He found no statistical evidence that prayer prolonged life or reduced stillbirths (though his findings would not meet today's criteria for a controlled prospective study).

More recently, various prayer experiments have caught the attention of evangelicals who are eager to show a positive connection between faith and science. One that generated particular excitement was Randolph Byrd's 1988 study, which observed 393 patients admitted to the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital. About half of the patients were prayed for by "born-again Christians with daily devotional prayer and active Christian fellowship in a local church." The other half served as a control group (they received no prayer). In this study, the prayer group significantly outscored the control group. (Read the whole thing here)

This commentary on prayer studies is in line with some of my own Baha'i thoughts about how prayer is sometimes conceptualized in scientific studies. Often when scientists researching the efficacy of prayer consider whether prayer "works" the measure of efficacy is whether the desired outcome occurred or not. For example, someone prays for a sick family member and if the person gets better, the prayer "worked" and if not it didn't. There are two problems with this view of prayer. First, it ignores the possibility that the answer to a prayer could be "no" and that might be the right answer and thus the best possible outcome. Second, it places the emphasis on the outcome of prayer rather than the act itself.

Related to the first problematic view of prayer, the Baha'i Writings state:

"God will answer the prayer of every servant if that prayer is urgent. His mercy is vast, illimitable. He answers the prayers of all His servants. He answers the prayer of this plant. The plant prays potentially, "O God! Send me rain!" God answers the prayer, and the plant grows. God will answer anyone...But we ask for things which the divine wisdom does not desire for us, and there is no answer to our prayer. His wisdom does not sanction what we wish. We pray, "O God! Make me wealthy!" If this prayer were universally answered, human affairs would be at a standstill. There would be none left to work in the streets, none to till the soil, none to build, none to run the trains. Therefore, it is evident that it would not be well for us if all prayers were answered. The affairs of the world would be interfered with, energies crippled and progress hindered. But whatever we ask for which is in accord with divine wisdom, God will answer. Assuredly!"
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 246)

In this case it appears that it is the alignment of prayer with the will of God that is most significant to how a prayer will be answered. That our prayers do not produce the results we desire does not mean there is something wrong with prayer, with God or with us.

Related to the second problematic view of prayer the Baha'i Writings state:

"For the core of religious faith is that mystical feeling which unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Bahá'u'lláh has so much stressed the importance of worship. It is not sufficient for a believer merely to accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality which he can acquire chiefly be means of prayer." (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, December 8, 1935: Bahá'í News, No. 102, August 1936, p. 2)

In this case it would seem that the value of prayer is in "cultivating the sense of spirituality" and evoking "that mystical feeling that unites man with God". This is regardless of whether a desired outcome occurs or not. Deepening our conscious connection with God has intrinsic spiritual value and prayer is a means of doing that.

Prayers studies should explore how people interpret the meaning of an answer or lack of an answer to prayer rather than just whether the health of someone prayed for improved or not. Prayer studies should also examine whether the act of praying for someone or being prayed for influences "the sense of spirituality" or "that mystical feeling". Both people's beliefs about prayer and prayers influence on what Emmons referred to as "sacred emotions" may play a mediating or moderating role in the relationship between prayer and health.